The grounds are overgrown around the mansion which serves as a women’s seminary in which the seven women are cloistered in The Beguiled. Perhaps they had gardeners—most likely slaves—before the Civil War began, or perhaps the school’s population was larger, so they took care of the grounds themselves in that time of relative safety. But they cannot care for their gardens and woods now. They are terribly untended.
The lush greenery lends an oppressive air to the movie’s proceedings. I saw the film in an air-conditioned theater in dry Southern California, but I could almost taste the sweaty humidity leeching off the screen. Add to the haze the fact that these women wear corsets, heavy skirts, and buttoned-all-the-way-up blouses no matter what they do, and the fact that writer/director Sofia Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Lou Sourd consistently frame the women behind bars, fences, candelabras, balcony railings, and high grass, and you’ve got a movie perfectly crafted to make one desperate for some kind of liberation.
The promise of liberation comes, for the women, in the form of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell, comely then feral). For the school’s matron (Nicole Kidman, stately), he is an opportunity to put their Christian convictions into practice, but he is also an object onto which the others can each project their questionable desires. One (Elle Fanning, nubile) wants to consummate her budding sexuality, another (Kirsten Dunst, repressed) wants to run away, another (Oona Laurence, innocent) longs for a older brother to take the place of the one the war has claimed, and yet another (Angourie Rice, sibilent) sees him as a chance to nurture her hatred of the North and stay true to “the cause.” He plays each off the others in an attempt to preserve his safety. Shade is thrown, bodices are ripped, some blood is spilt, and “Heavens to Betsy!” incredulity devolves into hellish last resorts.
Yes, The Beguiled is a pulpy affair, but Coppola is such an assured filmmaker, the otherwise Harlequin material gains a grave air. Perhaps that’s partly the point. We, society, haven’t typically taken feminine desire seriously, so while our first intuition is to treat this story as lurid, we’d be better off, like the wounded soldier, if we were more respectful of what women want and why.
There is a bit of horror to this story, though the film is never scary. The real horror isn’t what happens to the man. It’s what happens to the women in a culture that sees only one purpose for them. At the beginning of the film, the students are advised that they must excel in their studies so that they can become women of significance and not end up alone (like their teacher, it is insinuated). And it’s not like their interactions with this soldier sparks widespread societal change. Even the canons booming constantly just beyond the school’s woods aren’t booming for the women’s emancipation. No, more change was necessary before these women would be treated as equals. More change is still necessary today, it seems, given that this film is based on a film from the 70s told not from the women’s perspective, like this one, but from from the man’s. “The years creep slowly by, Lorena,” the women hum, whistle, and sing throughout the film. Indeed.
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